When NPR's Planet Money team decided to follow the path of a T-shirt  recently, the cotton was grown in the southern United States, spun in Indonesia and then woven into a T-shirt in Bangladesh. For Eric Henry, president and co-founder of TS Designs  and Cotton of the Carolinas, it seemed like a lost opportunity. Henry, his business partner Tom Sineath, and his allies and partners in the U.S. textiles industry have been crafting a different type of supply chain — one based on local connections and long-term commitments to one and other. 

Here's how he responded to the Planet Money project on the TS Designs blog

Businesses love increasing their profit margin; people love getting a deal and saving money. But now we’re seeing the real cost of following cheap labor. For us and those who are like-minded, it’s providing a challenge and an opportunity to pioneer a new path. One that brings jobs back home, provides living wages and supports a more robust and sustainable national economy.
Sustainability as a matter of survival

For Henry, the move toward a more local, sustainable business model began with NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Having screen printed T-shirts under contract for clients including Nike, Gap and Adidas, TS Designs suddenly found its former clients jumping ship and moving their supply chains overseas where they could benefit from cheaper labor. The company laid off more than 80 workers and was close to bankruptcy, but rather than join the industry in moving operations overseas, Henry and his business partners decided to double-down on American-made, sustainably produced T-shirts: 

It was not a choice, it was survival. We had to rebuild our business and find clients that shared our same triple bottom line values. Our mission is to produce the highest quality, most sustainable printed T-shirts in the market. Our first big change was how we printed T-shirts. We developed and patented REHANCE, a waterbased, print then garment dye process that eliminates PVC and phthalates which are still found in most textile printing inks even today. 
Renewables, beehives, gardens, biodiesel

Greener printing was just one piece of the puzzle, however. TS Designs also began working with organic cotton T-shirts, and started a lengthy process of greening its facilities in Burlington, N.C. From a large solar tracking array ("People didn't know what it was, they thought it was a satellite dish!") through community gardens for employees, to beehives, a biodiesel coop and even a biodiesel filling station for the public, the focus was always on a large-scale reimagining of how business can operate in society. 

The next phase of TS Designs journey came as Henry was watching trucks of raw cotton go past their facility, headed for shipping abroad, confident in the knowledge that much of that cotton would return to America as finished T-shirts. The absurdity of the situation suggested there had to be a better way. TS Designs began laying the groundwork for Cotton of the Carolinas, a 100 percent transparent supply chain that takes cotton "from dirt to shirt in under 700 miles."

Here's how Henry explained the development of the initiative to documentary maker Jesse Borkowski for his recent documentary, Real Value:

Reviving organic cotton in North Carolina

While many people thought the idea of a 100 percent local T-shirt was fanciful, Henry and his colleagues wanted to push the envelope of possibility even further. Alongside the localized supply chain, Cotton of the Carolinas had also been pursuing another supposedly "impossible" goal: viable, organic cultivation of cotton in North Carolina. The process took five years, but in 2012, they finally succeeded. Here's how the company announced the news: 

In 2006, Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, and Brian Morrell, president of Mortex Apparel, met with experts in state agriculture. Their mission: to grow organic cotton in North Carolina. The response: it can’t be done. Now, five years later and for the first time in recent memory, a usable volume of USDA-certified organic cotton is being harvested in North Carolina. Despite a myriad of challenges to growing organic cotton in the state, including weeds, pests and defoliation issues, two North Carolina farms – Hickory Meadows Organics and Parrish Enterprises – have grown 65 acres of healthy organic cotton that will be harvested by the end of the month.
cotton of the carolinas

Photo: Real Value film/video screengrab

Bringing communities together

For North Carolina, a state that has seen its native textiles and furniture industries decimated by globalization, and which was already reeling from the collapse of tobacco farming, initiatives like Cotton of the Carolinas are far from an academic exercise or a niche marketing concern. In fact, says Henry, the development of robust, sustainable, local supply chains provide an opportunity to bridge divides and bring communities together over a mutual self-interest: 

In these divided political times, I find the story of connecting and supporting local to cut across all political ideologies. Who is not going to support their neighbor? I am seeing a big shift back to "Made in America." All the jobs and manufacturing are not coming back to the U.S., but I think we can balance the scales. Point of fact, 98 percent of the apparel we purchase in the U.S. today is made overseas, and we can regain a lot of that lost ground. You get a better feeling knowing who grew your food or made your shirt than you do just knowing the price you paid for it. 
TS Designs and Cotton of the Carolinas are not done growing yet. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for those of us who know Eric Henry, he has big plans for the years ahead: 
We are excited about shrinking our transportation footprint even further and starting cut and sew in Burlington in 2014. We are looking to develop natural dyes using agriculture products grown in the South. We are looking to move beyond just T-shirts and utilizing our Cotton of the Carolinas supply chain make other apparel products like woven button-down shirts. We want to be on the frontline of bringing textiles back to North Carolina.
The quest for a 100% local T-shirt
'From dirt to shirt in less than 700 miles.' There aren't many T-shirt makers who can make that claim.